In 2007, Arizona State University became the first university to open Ph.D and master’s programs in Sustainability. A bachelor’s program followed in 2008, and there are currently 39 institutions with bachelor’s programs in sustainability, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Buzz is that sustainable and “green economy” jobs are on the rise, even as the rest of the market is not.
So how are the first classes of alums from ASU’s School of Sustainability faring?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not yet have data on “green” or sustainable employment and wage rates, and the U.S. Census Bureau does not track industry statistics on “sustainability,” making it difficult to track the field’s success compared to others.
Also, recent graduates seem to be having a harder time in the job market. About 11 percent of students who received their first bachelor’s in the 2008-09 school year are both unemployed and not enrolled in further schooling, according to a report published this year by National Center for Education Statistics. (The national unemployment rate was 8.6 percent in November, according to BLS.)
None of the sustainability alumni contacted for this story replied with stories of joblessness or total frustration with the degree after graduation — though several did not reply to interview requests. Those that did told success personal success stories, boding well for the new and spotlighted program.
But it appears the success comes with a caveat: a sustainability degree is marketable, but only if you know how to market it.
Claire Sullivan, a recruiting development & corporate relations associate for the School of Sustainability, says her job is “acting as a bridge between students and businesses in the field of sustainability.”
She brings in guest speakers to talk about career paths, and she teaches classes on how to use online networks to connect with people in a graduate’s sustainability field, whether it be green business, environmental science, policy, consulting or more. Coming up next fall: a career fair specifically for sustainability students.
All of this helps both graduates and employers figure out exactly what value sustainability alums can provide, Sullivan says. She places special importance on internships and outside projects as well because they give sustainability students a chance to prove they have defined skills that can be used in the workplace.
“Most businesses who want to jump on the sustainability bandwagon want to be associated with the school,” Sullivan says, but they may not know how to evaluate sustainability hires or create a full-time position for them.
This is why Sullivan says sustainability graduates must know “how to talk about their degrees” as they look for work. They must be able to talk about their unique education in a way that shows how they will how to transfer those skills “into something they should be hired for,” she says.
This is a message that some School of Sustainability (SoS) alums echo.
John Harlow, (MA Sustainability, ’10) says that unless the degree is used correctly, it may not help graduates appeal to businesses or institutions that see sustainability as an added cost.
While the possibilities for a career in sustainability are limitless, he says, that also means one has to be very specific in explaining what he or she can do. Those skills are pretty scattered across science, politics, business and more, meaning that graduating students must be more specific than "sustainability" when telling employers what they bring to a job.
“I think that the sustainability degree can give you a lot of flexibility, and be a great way to distinguish yourself in the marketplace,” Harlow says. “But, it can also be, for some people, not what they expected. And if they come into the program with certain expectations that are not met, then they can be very disappointed.”
Harlow’s personal experience seems to be a success story. A year after graduating, he is now a consultant for ASU sustainability conferences, among other consultant assignments in the Valley, and says he feels comfortable with the work.
But Harlow adds that he also did a lot of projects at SoS that let him find and develop new skills. They were also something to show off to employers. And he already knew that the world wasn’t handing out lifelong careers in sustainability.
The skills and knowledge learned at SoS are suited to being entrepreneurial, making new connections, and finding a niche in undefined markets, Harlow says. If that’s your thing, great. If not, then maybe sustainability isn’t the degree for you, even if you care about the ideas if promotes.
This is something students themselves talk about all the time, Harlow says. Most in the sustainability program are concerned about their job prospects after graduation, and are looking to the school for guidance.
“I think that students wish that more could be done in placing them in jobs,” Harlow says. “If you do a cross-section of current graduate students, you would have a much different impression of the program than you would from people in my position, who have already graduated and found work.”
The school does not do any traditional job placement, Sullivan says. Instead, they try to equip students with skills (like resume-building, networking, interviewing) that will empower them to job search on their own.
“That’s a somewhat outdated model,” Sullivan says of job placement. “Unfortunately, given the job market today, the students really need to own that [job search] process.”
Given the program’s newness and smallness, sustainability students have unique needs and the school can still improve in certain areas, she says. While staying small means that students can bond and help each other network after graduation, it also means SoS has less than 200 alumni so far, meaning less employers with ties to the school.
“The biggest drawback to the School of Sustainability being [in] a new field is that we don’t have a strong alumni network right now,” Sullivan says.
Though she has only been at the school since July, Sullivan says she is working to improve this as well as students’ networking skills, through career mixers, events with organizations such as Green Chamber of Phoenix, and lessons on how to effectively use LinkedIn in class.
“The most drastic thing that has changed in last five to 10 years in the job market is that it is now so much about your network, and not so much about your application. But I don’t think that message has trickled down to students.”
The message has hit home with some sustainability students, and the school certainly has some success stories already.
In 2009, Andrew Krause was one of the first four students to graduate with a Bachelor’s in Sustainability. The 25-year-old is now chief process officer at Natural Power & Energy.
He says the Sustainability degree was a plus in part because it made him stand out from the pack of recent graduates with generic degrees and skills: “When I was in the Engineering school, there were thousands of engineers. [It was] fairly hard to differentiate from one another.”
But just as important was the school’s ability to connect students with businesses and networks of people who are leading the field of sustainability, says Krause, now in his second year of the sustainability graduate program.
He says the school is building an alumni network and employee network, and that the faculty also pulled strings to give graduating students opportunities.
“I felt everyone was very willing to open up their office, open up their contact list, for students who are tenacious,” Krause says.
Convincing businesses that they need your sustainability know-how is vital, he says.
Krause says he pulled together his degree, thesis, outside projects, and work experience he gained during college, to “just tell a story, basically.”
Even though he finds his work fulfilling, Krause quickly returned to the School of Sustainability (SoS) and is in his second year of the graduate program.
“The reason I’m back, and not working full-time, is because I didn’t get enough,” he says.
Emily Freeman (MS Sustainability ’11) seems to face no such dilemma.
By April, she used her connections to Waste Management through a research report she did with them at SoS and landed a job as their sustainability consultant in Colorado after graduation.
Also key, Freeman says, was the time the school’s dean sat her down and asked, What type of company would you like to work for?
She answered Waste Management, because of her interest in recycling issues, which led to everything that followed.
“It is my ideal job,” Freeman says. “I’m really excited, and I love what I do.”
Freeman also talks about the questions she and other students had before graduating: This is a new school and nobody knows what to expect from us. Will anybody hire us? What skills will we really bring?
But she says the future is actually brighter than this for SoS alums — even though the school can still improve, for example helping students get useful work certifications like LEED Certification.
Freeman says she does not think sustainability, as a career field, will crash like the Dot Com industry of last decade. This is because the job skills are useful in all markets; even if the environment stops being a hot topic, sustainability can simply work to make supply chains more efficient instead.
“I don’t know if the idea of sustainability will stay; it is so new and different right now,” she says. “But these business practices aren’t going away, whatever they’re called in the future.”
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